Msnbc.com Uses Slide Show for In-Depth Narrative Story

Like most investigative reporters, the culmination of Bill Dedman‘s reporting is generally an article or a package of articles. As he worked on his latest project, he collected images and documents that helped tell the story of a wealthy, elderly heiress who owns several expansive homes but doesn’t appear to live in them.

When he was ready to write, he decided that, rather than craft a 2,500-word story, he’d rely on the images he had shown to his family and coworkers, accompanied by captions. The slide show would be an experiment, a way to see if in-depth reporting could be presented in a way that would reach far more people.

Judging by the response, it may have been. Dedman told me that he’s received 500 e-mails from readers about the story, entitled, “The Clarks: an American story of wealth, scandal and mystery.” That’s more than he’s received for any story he’s done in 30 years. And with 78 million page views, that’s more than any other story on msnbc.com.

Dedman and I corresponded by e-mail and discussed how he decided to do a slide show, what he gained and lost with this story form, and whether this can work for other stories. Here’s an edited version of our exchange.

Steve Myers: What is this story about?

Bill Dedman: It’s a historical mystery with connections from the Civil War era to today. Why are the mansions of one of America’s richest women sitting vacant?

The mansions are owned by the reclusive Huguette Clark, now 103, whose father, copper miner William Andrews Clark, was one of the richest men in the country and also a U.S. senator from Montana who had to leave the Senate in disgrace — then was re-elected.

People in Montana were surprised to learn that his daughter was still alive. But where is she? And what will become of her fortune?

How did you get interested in this story?

Dedman: I got into the story last summer, when I saw the Connecticut house for sale. Tiring of looking at real estate listings for houses I couldn’t afford, I looked at houses I really couldn’t afford.

The mansion in New Canaan is on the market for $24 million. In the assessor’s records online, I saw the owner’s name, Huguette Clark, but didn’t recognize it. I read in the zoning minutes online that her attorney said it had not been lived in for 50 years. Then I saw an online discussion in Santa Barbara about her empty mansion there. And her father’s political history was interesting. So I was hooked.

If you write about what you’re interested in, others will be interested, too.

How long did this take?

Dedman: I started last summer, but I did other stories, went to Haiti, etc., in the meantime. It was probably two months of work, counting reading all the Clark books I could find, tracking down a few distant relatives, waiting for public records to be dragged out of archives, hanging out with the doormen.

In your reporting, were you guided by your research, which led you to seek photos to illustrate it, or were you guided by the images you found?

Dedman: All along I was collecting all the photos I could. I had planned to do a normal story format, with as many photos as we could use.

The photos also help with interviews; if you show up at an interview with a notebook, you are in a subservient position, begging for information. If instead you show up with printouts of photos to show, then the person you’re interviewing is learning something, is eager to see them all, and it helps the conversation along. It’s the same trick as making the graphic for a story as you do the reporting, so you can take the graphic to the interview, and let the sources draw on your draft copy, correct it, add what they know.

Where did you find the images?

Dedman: Some were free: The New York Times generously shared two old photos; the Library of Congress; the Realtor for the Connecticut home; the Corcoran Gallery of Art had old photos, photos of the art, and a color photo of the salon that it still has on display from Clark’s mansion. The grand-nephew, in Austria, let me use a couple of old family photos from his book, which unfortunately is published only in French. Old newspaper clippings came from the Google News Archive, a New York Times subscription and ProQuest Historical Newspapers, which many public libraries have access to. Pictometry gave us one aerial of Santa Barbara, similar to what you can see on Bing. And I took photos at Woodlawn Cemetery and her apartment building.

The only photo I just grabbed off the Web was the Renoir; that image was the best I could get. Sotheby’s, which sold the painting, would not hand over a better image, but this one is good enough.

Paid images: New-York (yes, there’s a hyphen) and Montana and Las Vegas historical societies and archives. Maybe $100 apiece. We paid a Santa Barbara photographer for a better copy of an aerial he had already shot — $150. Altogether, perhaps $1,000 or $1,200.

Documents included a marriage license, divorce record, wills and probate files, cemetery lot cards, passenger ship’s registries, passport application, zoning records, assessor records, and census forms from 1880 through 1930.

How did you decide to do a slide show?

Dedman: I like to talk stories through before I write them. As I was collecting photos of the Clarks, I kept showing them in a little slide show to my family, to my mother (81) and my daughters (7 and 10). It really helped tell the story.

I put the photos online to show our projects team at msnbc.com, and photographer Jim Seida said, why don’t we just publish it as a slide show? I was skeptical at first — would that crimp the writing? — but in the end I was advocating doing it this way when the photo team was skeptical. I thought far more people would read through it this way, and it would be worth an experiment.

We’ve done slide shows for years, of course, but the slide show is not our usual medium for telling an investigative or in-depth story.

The photo editors threw the photos into our standard slide show template, which was built in-house years ago. You just drag the photos into a folder and it makes a slide show, which you can edit by moving the photos around and writing captions.

One problem: I didn’t like the font, which was way too small for reading a long narrative. Our standard caption text is smaller than our standard story text, too small to read that many words comfortably. The solution was to put the text in the headline field of our slide show template, so it came out larger. A workaround.

Once you decided that this could work as a slide show, how did you construct the narrative?

Dedman: The order of the photos was determined by what I had found would draw the listener/reader/user into the story: first just a shot to establish the two main characters (father and daughter), then the empty mansions, and from them on it was chronological. Readers sent e-mails saying they thought “Oh no!” when they saw that it was 47 slides, but then after the first four, they couldn’t stop.

Chronology is the easiest way to tell a story, and easiest on the reader. It’s just like telling a bank robbery or other story. You might tell the main points or the most interesting part first — “Four people were taken hostage …” — but soon you have to start at the beginning: “It all began just after closing time …” In this slide show, that transition comes on slide 5, “Where did such wealth come from?” which takes us back to 1863, the beginning of the story of William Andrews Clark.

What did you gain by presenting this as a slide show? What did you lose?

Dedman: First, it’s a pain to write in 50-word chunks. I had to go over and over that text, to tighten, far more than I would have if it had been a “story.” That’s a gain.

An enterprise story on the site, presented in a normal story page, might get a million page views. The page views for this slide show, so far, are 78 million.In writing a story, you can throw in a phrase or sentence when you need to clarify something; no room for that here. If you don’t — or can’t — throw in that extra phrase or sentence, the narrative moves much more quickly. So something gained and lost.

You lose attribution. Except for attributing the quotes, I removed all the “how do you know this” material. That all went into the “notes and sources” page, along with the tidbits that couldn’t fit on the slide show.

You lose complexity. For example, we quote Mark Twain, who had a grand time going on for pages about how bad Sen. Clark was. “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and ball on his legs.” Well, the story is more complicated. As I point out on the notes page, Twain’s benefactor, the man who rescued Twain from bankruptcy, was Henry Huttleston Rogers, who was a business competitor of Clark’s. It’s possible that Twain’s wallet was talking.

You also lose paragraph marks. I could have put them in, but that adds more lines, and I was worried that the text would run over, breaking the whole experience for readers in some browsers. So I chose in the end to keep the captions to one paragraph. That makes it harder to maintain clarity.

The story is more readable in the print version, for that reason. That print version is also the life raft for people who have trouble seeing the slide show in their browser.

How would someone know if this approach would work for his story? Are there certain types of stories that would be appropriate?

I’m not a fan of slide shows that are created just to generate page views. If you have 10 reasons the Red Sox are going to be better this year, just tell me the 10 reasons; don’t make me click through 10 slides to find out. The readers know they’re being manipulated.

But if you have a tale that you’re finding is much easier to tell to your friends and family and colleagues if you show them the photos, then you should probably tell it that way to the reader, too.

Are the captions really 2,500 words? Didn’t seem like it.

Dedman: Thanks! It’s 2,788 words, not counting photo credits.

The idea that we have to write shorter for the Web is hooey. If we write about something that people care about, they keep reading.

Of course, on a normal story that jumps to two or more pages, far fewer people read the second page than the first. It drops off significantly. We might have 600,000 people read the first page of a story, and only 60,000 read the second page; most of those 60,000 readers will then stick with us for several more pages.

But so what if fewer people read page 2? The ones who want more are getting the full story, and we’re getting more page views, and more time on the site, which are the main measures that advertisers are interested in.

What is the rationale to write shorter on the Web? There’s no savings in time. You have to research a story thoroughly either way, and as Mark Twain and others have pointed out, it takes longer to write short than it does to write long.

How has traffic been? Is there any way to compare that to traffic for a similar 2,500-word story?

Dedman: The page views so far are 78 million. There are 47 slides, so that’s the equivalent of more than 1.6 million people reading every slide. Not that it works that way, of course; some people dipped in and out. In all, 2.2 million unique users (computers) went to the slide show.

A typical slide show, such as snow photos from a big storm, or the Week in Pictures, might get 3 million page views. “An evening at the Oscars” might do 6 or 8 million.

The 78 million isn’t a record. Our Haiti earthquake slide show got 99 million page views in a week. But it’s more than the death of Michael Jackson (56 million page views on the slide show and 7.4 million on the first story about his death).

An enterprise story on the site, presented in a normal story page, might get a million page views. It all depends how long it’s on the cover of msnbc.com, and whether our half-sister company MSN picks it up. Some stories go over that number. For comparison, the story on Todd Palin’s e-mails was about 1.5 million. The series on abusive interrogations at Guantanamo got 3 million. A story on Hillary Clinton’s hidden thesis at Wellesley reached 3.2 million.

If this same slide show had been told as a story, and had gotten the same display on our cover, I’m guessing it would have had 1.5 to 2 million page views. But the time spent by readers would have been far less. The average time spent by readers on this slide show was more than 13 minutes.

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